I first came across Habibi when I attended the London Book Fair earlier this year, at a talk about graphic novels. I remember the intricate drawings and the size of the book when it was introduced. Probably one of the longest graphic novels around, it is not for the light-hearted.
After a delightfully impromptu visit to the Forbidden Planet today, I chanced upon Habibi on the shelves, marked with a ‘signed copy’ sticker on the front, enticing passers-by to buy it. I picked up the sample copy that was not kept in a protective plastic sheet and was instantly taken by the beautiful but yet simple design.
Hard-bounded in a beautiful dark red cover, with pink and gold arabic designs framing a simple black and white drawing right in the centre, it prepares readers for a serious journey to come. It does not pretend to be what it isn’t. It is humble, simple and beautifully crafted.
I flipped through a few pages and was instantly taken by the drawings and the lettering. Everything was drawn by hand, giving an even more personal feel to it, talking directly to the reader as if the book was drawn and written for me alone. My copy sits proudly on my bookshelf now.
I started reading it at a cafe straight afterwards and I continued when I got back home, sitting in one spot until I completed it. I will surely read it again (and again and again), more slowly to savour the drawings and give them the attention that they demand, but for now, I want to tell you about my first journey with Habibi.
To give you a bit of background, I am not a fan of drama, nor religious writings. Habibi covers both these genres. I am completely taken by it despite its genres because of the beauty in the writing and drawings. I am not well-versed in the Bible nor the Qur’an but I have always been curious about the stories they hold. I am glad that Craig Thompson took his time to research and put this book together for it made the religious stories palatable and very enjoyable.
The main story that holds it all together is one about the many guises of love. It follows the lives of two individuals, a girl and a boy, through their lives as slaves and more. It follows them through modernisation.
Growing up in Malaysia, I was part of the unlucky batch of primary school intake, where the government decided to stop teaching Arabic to non-Muslims as I started in year one. Living in a Muslim country where Arabic prayers are heard everywhere, with mosques dotting every town and city, it is hard not to become familiar with its sounds. Though not understanding its meaning (back then), the phrase “bismillah ir-rahman ir-rahim alhamdulillahi rabbil alameen” became a common one to our ears.
Habibi allowed me to go back into my memories, to the sounds I heard as a child growing up, of the Muslim prayers. Interlaced, it binds the familiar characters and stories of the Bible that I have read (and watched), perhaps more recently, with my childhood memories. It doesn’t pick sides, nor persuade the reader of either, it just plainly reminds us that story-telling is old. It reminds us that our lives are all stories, even when it is real.
I do not know if the Arabic writings are accurate, though I am inclined to believe so. They are beautiful. It makes me sad that I have never had the chance to learn this intricate language, even though I grew up in a Muslim country. That would perhaps have helped us non-Muslims to appreciate the religion more.
Now that I am more cynical towards religion, I feel that I would not have given these religious stories the time of day if they weren’t laid out in a book like this.
There are many books that are able to tell entertaining and (perhaps slightly inaccurate but) captivating stories in the Western world like Gaiman and Pratchett’s Good Omens, that would help agnostic readers like me appreciate Christianity a bit better (with a dash or more of comic relief), but it is rare for the same to be available for Islam. Habibi is the first that I have seen that tells stories from the Qur’an so openly, but perhaps it is for a lack of looking on my part too. I do feel that there seems to be a fear of blasphemy, of being unintentionally rude towards others’ religions that is holding us back, which is a shame.
After all, stories are made to be told and re-told and re-told; and trying to stop that which is natural and necessary is just futile.